Balancing agility and efficiency: Open architecture and platforms in government

Increased flexibility in delivery models must be balanced with the architectural discipline to re-use, share, and consume common components

The drive for public sector organisations to become more citizen-centred with increased flexibility in delivery models must be balanced with the architectural discipline to re-use, share, and consume commoncomponents wherever possible. This as called an “open architecture” approach.

The application of open, platform-based thinking to the public sector provides a powerful means of underpinning the technological aspects of a modern, digital public service. Service providers’ adoption of open architectures – standardised ways of doing things – enables them to take greater advantage of consumption models of downstream service delivery. Such models are usually both cheaper and more flexible, and involve the assembly of user-centred services from increasingly standard components across a common platform based on commonly shared open standards:

A platform is a set of common components, assembly methods or technologies that serve as building blocks for a portfolio of products or services. Platform innovation involves exploiting the “power of commonality” - using modularity to create a diverse set of derivative offerings more quickly and cheaply than if they were stand-alone items.

Platforms exist in a variety of industries and the notion of a “platform” has been used in a range of contexts and there has been a typology of platforms proposed. 

First, internal platforms, conceived as a set of subsystems and interfaces internal to the organisation that have been intentionally planned and developed to form a common structure from which a stream of derivative products can be efficiently developed and produced – for example, Sony’s Walkman, HP’s modular printer components, Rolls-Royce’s family of engines - saving fixed costs, benefiting from component re-use, and enabling flexibility.

Second, supply-chain platforms that seek to replicate these benefits across interfaces among different organisations within a supply chain - most notably, the automotive industry. For example, the Renault-Nissan alliance developed a common platform for the Renault Clio and the Nissan Micra.

Third, industry platforms - products, services or technologies that are developed by one or several firms, and which serve as foundations upon which other firms can build complementary products, services or technologies, such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone, the internet, payment cards, fuel cell automotive technology, and some genomic technologies.

Encouraging new thinking and overcoming entrenched cultural barriers to the emergence and adoption of open platforms within the UK public sector remains a significant challenge. As an illustration of how difficult this can be, consider the differences between the two depictions below of the “open stack”, developed by one of the authors in 2011 to explain the architectural and cultural change needed to bring about the open platform dynamic. It shows that there are various interrelated aspects that the public sector needs to address simultaneously:

open stack: a mix of behaviours underpinned by technology

Figure 1 (A and B): open stack: a mix of behaviours underpinned by technology

Figure 1A shows the original concept that encapsulates the way in which open platforms are a dynamic comprising both technology and market behaviour. Moving down the stack from the apex, in order to achieve the aims of “open government”, the public sector needs to change the way in which it organises itself. 

This form of organisation needs to be established upon a set of firm architectural principles across the public sector that enshrine citizen-driven, standardised utility service delivery models. In turn, to achieve this, the public sector needs to stop developing and delivering everything internally, and focus more on the commissioning and consumption of service outcomes – a culture change from delivery to commissioning.

To do this, the sector needs to think much more about these end services, and worry less about the inputs - service-driven procurement models and practices. However, it won’t be able to do this unless it is able to compare and contrast competing alternatives - increasing transparency – otherwise it will be comparing apples with pears.

Moving downwards towards the technology base of the stack, increased transparency requires, in turn, commonly specified components - but these only work together if they are supported with standards of interoperability and shared data. Finally, for such interoperability to have credibility, it must be secure.

The way the open stack appears in UK Cabinet Office’s Strategic Implementation Plan of 2011, shown in Figure 1B, illustrates how difficult it can be to achieve culture change even within organisations that have embraced open principles. 

In Figure 1B, “culture change from delivery to commissioning” has been muted to “innovative ways of working and strengthened governance”, and “service-driven procurement models and practices” have become “commercial models and practices” – not at all the same thing. The hard fact is that achievement of open architecture and platforms within the UK’s public services will require proper culture change, not simply an adjustment to business-as-usual. 

This is an excerpt from Digitizing Government: Understanding and implementing new digital business models, which is published on 3 December 2014

Click here to download a longer excerpt from the book.

Alan BrownAlan W. Brown is Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Surrey Business School at the University of Surrey. He previously worked in strategic IT leader roles in industry.


Jerry FishendenJerry Fishenden was recently interim deputy CTO for the UK government. He has previously been CTO for Microsoft UK, the City of London financial regulator, the UK Parliament and the National Health Service. 

Mark Thompson


Mark Thompson is strategy director at Methods Group; senior lecturer in information systems at Cambridge Judge Business School; visiting professor at Surrey Business School; and recent board member of TechUK.

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